Survival of the fittest

It is a constant battle between Dog and Husband. Husband wants to eat his dinner. Dog, too, wants to eat Husband’s dinner. Husband is not having the bitch have it her way (yes, the dog is actually a bitch, or to put it nicely, she is a girl-dog). So the battle of wills commences…

At first Dog approaches Husband in a casual manner.

Dog:’Daddy, why don’t we share your dinner?’

Husband: ‘I don’t think so.’

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Then it becomes more forceful. Dog: ‘Come Dad, don’t be selfish! Look at me, you bugger!’

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Slowly it transforms into blatant begging. ‘Daddy, daddy, spare me a chunk of beef! Pleeeeaaase… I’ll love you forever!’

Husband: ‘Go away, Dog! It’s MY dinner!’ As an only-child, Husband is unfamiliar with the idea of sharing his property.

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Finally Dog adopts a new approach. She begins to look rather faint and dizzy.

Dog: ‘Daddy, I fear I may faint … I’m starving… If I don’t make it, Daddy, you can have my toy bone. If only I got a morsel off your plate, I could just make it…’

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Husband won’t surrender his dinner. It’s a matter of life or death for him. For both of them. But that’s only until the last crumb is polished off the pate. Then they are friends all over again.

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Drudgery

What follows is a story about Bryn. But Bryn could well be me. I understand him well. We have similar heroes. Hercule Poirot is one of them. And we have similar obsessions. Though perhaps I am more outgoing than Bryn. Anyway, this isn’t about me. The story is about Bryn.

DRUDGERY

For the past nineteen years Bryn took the 8:21 bus to work and the 15:42 one back home. Even though everyone else drove a car, Bryn had stuck to his guns. Bus was a superior mode of transport – there was an air of reliability about it. Bryn appreciated the peace of mind buses offered. From the heights of his bus seat he would look down on the hapless, mad-eyed car drivers, and smile.

Then the new manager came to the branch and made changes.

The predictability of Bryn’s daily bus commute had been thrown up in the air like a pack of cards. Sometimes he would start after lunch and work till five. That meant catching the 17:12 bus. He had also been made to work every other Saturday. Working on the weekend wasn’t a problem – since his mother died four years ago Bryn had no weekend commitments to speak of. He lived alone. He shopped on Thursdays. He did chores on Friday after work. Working on Saturdays wouldn’t put him off that much if it weren’t for the big, gaping hole it had created in his life: a midweek day off. Bryn was distraught.

He’d started watching daytime TV but soon found he couldn’t cope with the unpredictable human factor of reality shows. He promptly switched to ITV3 where the looping repeats of Agatha Christie’s Poirot had at last put his mind at ease. This was his world. Hercule Poirot was his kind of man: organised, punctual, particular. It was like looking in the mirror, and nodding with approval. Bryn understood Hercule’s idiosyncrasies. Not only did he understand them – he lived them: the starching of his collars, the aligning of his shoes on the rack, the squeezing of his toothpaste starting from the bottom end, the sleeping on his back with the duvet drawn up to his chin and his fingers pinned neatly on top. It was such a relief knowing that there was someone out there just like him, for even though Poirot was a fictional character, Christie must have come across his prototype in real life. How else would she know him in such minute detail?

Bryn belonged at last! He acted and thought like Poirot. He even looked like him: rather small, corpulent and balding. He was also so self-effacingly polite that he was widely ignored, or at least, underestimated.
Bryn was remarkably inconspicuous. People never remembered him, or his name, or who he was. He could be anyone. A middle aged, ordinary, square man, he blended with the background like a blur – he was a non-entity. And that was what was eating him alive. He could do better than that. He could demonstrate his genius. Not to the world, but to himself. If only he could get into the mind of a criminal…

This morning Bryn was on the 8:21 bus. A yellow Mini, with a woman dropping her mobile and searching for it frantically with her head between her knees, zoomed by to its certain tragic end. Bryn bound his hands and kept them neatly in his lap. He was smiling rather beatifically. The 8:21 was like a home to him. His second home. He had taken it yesterday, too. It had been his day off, but he took the 8:21 to town and the 15:42 back home nevertheless. He did that often. The routine gave him a sense of purpose. And yesterday had been Wednesday – the market day. It was as good a reason as any to be in town, but not the only one.

As soon as he walked into the bank he could feel the electricity in the air. He resented it. He had twenty minutes for tea, which he would normally have with a biscuit, before pinning his name tag to the lapel of his suit and taking his place at the counter by the front window. There was no chance of that today.

Angela’s face was burning with excitement. She accosted Bryn by the door, “Did you hear?”
“Did I?”

“Armed robbery!” she shrieked. “We had a robbery! Yesterday! The guy had a gun, held Sandra at gunpoint. Surely you’d have heard?”
“Can’t say I did, sorry,” he looked at her, contrite.

“God! Where were you!” she gasped. “Sandra’s off. Too traumatic… She’ll be off sick, I imagine, for weeks.”

“I guess we’ll have to cover her shifts,” Bryn offered hopefully. Angela gawked at him with disbelief, and then exchanged a meaningful glance with Tracey.

Tracey was a part-timer and worked only afternoons, but she was in today, evidently standing in for the traumatised Sandra. She had a long, scrawny neck, like a turkey, and it shook when she spoke, “He got away with five grand.”

“Neat sum,” Bryn raised an eyebrow and cocked his head, trying to appear bemused.

“He put the gun straight into Sandra’s face. It was that or the money.”

“Did they arrest him?” Bryn was wondering if there was still time for his tea. Would it be rude if he stole a glance at his watch?

“They’re still looking… He vanished into the thin air. Sandra gave the cops his description – well, what she could remember, under the circumstances… Black coat, black balaclava… He was carrying a bag – black, with a zip and a white logo. He was tall. Big man! Didn’t say anything, just pointed the gun in her face. I was in the toilet, missed the whole thing. It took seconds,” Angela seemed disappointed.

“Let’s hope they find him,” Bryn concluded, aiming to sound definitive. He smiled apologetically and looked at his watch. It was ten to nine. “Well, I’ll… What a day! I think I’ll have a cuppa on that note,” he said and retreated awkwardly to the kitchen.

“He didn’t take it in,” Angela whispered, shaking her head with pity. “As if he doesn’t care. I’m not sure if he’s heard me…”

“He just looks… through you. I say he’s got that syndrome-” Tracey wobbled her neck with agitation. “What do you call it? I forget. But he has it and don’t tell me otherwise.”

The 15:42 was two minutes late. That disturbed Bryn. He didn’t like surprises. Then it got even worse – there was a diversion. The police had cordoned off part of The Street between the bank and Market Square.

Bryn got home outside his usual schedule. There was no point watching Poirot sixteen minutes into the episode. Instead, he took his replica pistol out of the table kitchen drawer. He had chiselled it with great attention to detail and painted it metallic black. Angela was excused for taking it for the real thing. It amused Bryn that she had conjured him as a big man. Women always exaggerate.

He wondered who had found the money. Someone had. They had not handed it in. That hadn’t gone to plan. Bryn had abandoned the bag by the cheese stall. If he’d found it, he would’ve taken it to the police. People were dishonest – more than he had given them credit for. Still, he knew how the criminal mind worked. But it was only a petty criminal. He was yet to find out what made a murderer tick.

Appeal

What follows is a short story about a terminally ill woman. My mum died five years ago. She had cancer. The day before she died, Haley and I went to visit her in the hospice. Haley was only four. She danced for her grandma to make her feel better. It had made my mum smile.

 

The Appeal

            She had welcomed the arrival of pain.

It had been a long time since she last felt it – a rare symptom of life. Then it grew. A steamroller compressed her chest, forcing out air, laying hot tar over her ribcage, grinding her ribs to powder. Her throat was knotted, her sluggish jaw incompetent to utter sounds. Panic screamed inside her head, blowing it to pieces.  Kate fell unconscious.

It was a heart attack. A year ago she had been given the grace of feeling pain. Now a machine was pumping oxygen into her lungs: methodically, rhythmically, with the patient and unfailing reliability of a saint. Kate was at home, attached to a network of tubes, hanging on to life without straining a single muscle in her body.

How curious, she often thought, that she could only know her body through Adam’s reactions to it. When he tucked her in for the night, he would catch the sight of what she could only imagine as wasted arms and withered legs. His face would twist. There would be breathless pain in it, comparable perhaps to the agony of one’s lungs being drained of air.  Adam could not bring himself to vocalise that pain even though he had lungs full of screams. But his torn and twisted face would say it all. It was easy to read it, like a letter from a terrible and sad place where Kate had never been before, a deserted town ravaged by war and disease, somewhere far, far away – a foreign place where no one wants to go. Her body.

Adam had tried to spare her the indignity of dwelling in such an ungodly place. He had shown her ballet photographs to the lawyer who represented her in court. “Can’t you see,” he had said, “Kate doesn’t want to live. Not like this,” he pointed to the inert lump of her body, the ultimate testimony to Kate’s plight. “Her life was about dance and movement. She created beauty with her body. She’s dead without it. We’re only prolonging her suffering.”

That was what she had told him. In the beginning her fingers would lose grip on a coffee mug, then her legs buckled under her. When her mouth slackened and saliva trickled out while she was fully awake, Kate demanded the truth. She had been told the shutdown of her neurological system would inevitably detach her body from her brain, making it foreign and unresponsive. She had told Adam she would rather be dead.

Her bed was facing the French window overlooking the garden. Early autumn in their garden was astounding. The movement of rusting colours in the fading sun captivated all her senses. In her mind, Kate was choreographing a dance to transplant that elusive pulse of nature onto the stage. In her mind it was possible. In her mind, the human body was able to vibrate like hues of autumn leaves. In her mind, she smiled as Rufus pounced on a finch amongst the wide-rimmed leaves of rhubarb. There was a scuffle and a commotion, the leaves flapped, the finch fluttered away and Rufus sneezed. He came back to the patio and looked at Kate through the window. His eyes were eager. Despite the huffing machinery of humidifiers and beeping heart monitors, despite her foreign body, she was his mum – the same mum she had always been. She used to be the one to walk him every morning, Adam’s work demanded an investment of time and dedication that left no room for Rufus. Neither Rufus nor Kate used to mind that. They would not trade their morning walks for anything in the world. They had secret places in the wilderness that no one knew about for no one had ever once disturbed the fat webs stretched across the tree branches.

Rufus was not allowed in the house anymore for fear of passing infections to Kate – her immune system was defunct along with her body. But they could still look at each other through the window, Rufus’s breath condensing on the glass, Kate’s breath humming with every puff of her life support machine. She would not dream of abandoning Rufus, leaving him all alone on the other side of the window.

She was relieved when three weeks ago Adam’s application for a court order to switch off her life support had been turned down. She’d had to let him try to do what he thought was right for her, but she desperately needed her saintly machine to keep her going, to let her compose her ballet pieces and watch over Rufus in the garden. Adam only knew what she had told him years ago, when she had been a different person. He couldn’t be blamed and she would never do that, but she wanted to live.

“Blink,” he had whispered before the hearing, “Try to blink to tell me you want me to do it, Kate.”

Tears do not need muscles to well up, and they had because she loved him and hated seeing him in such pain. In the blink of a stray tear Adam had smiled. He had done the right thing by his wife even though he had failed to secure the injunction. She was relieved. She could get on with her life. There was so much yet to be done.

Rufus pricked up his ears and ran several circles out on the patio. There was the soft sound of a door gliding through air behind her bed. Adam must be back from work. In her mind, Kate was running circles and jumping with excitement.

Adam sat by her bedside and leaned forward so that his eyes levelled with hers and all he could see was the joy in them. He was smiling. “I’ve got good news,” he said. “We’ve been granted the right to appeal. I promise you, Kate, I won’t give up. This won’t go on forever. You’ll be allowed to die on your own terms.”

A steamroller compressed her chest, forcing a soundless scream out of her heart.